How to Avoid Common Email Gaffes


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

July 15, 2020 

How to Avoid Common Email Gaffes

“You can spend hours editing an email but send it as if you wrote it in a minute.”

—Sally Rooney

The only certainties in life are death, taxes, and complaints about email. We’re kidding, of course, but if you ask the average businessperson to list three email pet peeves, don't be surprised to get back a list of ten.

Today’s eTip won’t address every bugaboo about email we’ve heard through the years—that long, meandering message would turn into the monster it meant to destroy. Instead, we'll review six common faux pas that plague email communication—along with fixes for each one.

1. Say-Nothing Subject Lines

Marketing professional Loren McDonald said it best: “The ‘from line’ is what recipients use to determine whether to delete an email. The ‘subject line’ is what motivates people to actually open the email.” A vague or missing subject line makes your email more likely to get ignored or passed over for the next message in your reader's inbox.

THE FIX: Think of your main message as a movie, and the subject line as the trailer. Your subject line should make the reader think, “This is something I need to see.” To do so, choose precise terms that preview the main point of your message and connect with your reader. Try to limit your subject line to eight words or fewer.

Vague: Upcoming Trip
Informative: Logistics for August 19-21 D.C. Training

Unclear: Bonuses
Relevant: New Company Bonus Structure

2. Long, Rambling Messages

Emails that go on and on without expressing a clear main point create confusion and waste readers' time, forcing unnecessary follow-up emails.

THE FIX: Get to the point quickly. Focus your message on one main point, cut superfluous details, and express what you want from the reader. The SEA pattern will help you accomplish these goals for most messages:

  • Situation: Start by introducing your main point—what you are writing about and why.
  • Explanation: Answer other pertinent questions: who, where, when, and how? In other words, the middle should support your main point by answering the reader's questions about it. If these questions require further explanation, explore each main supporting point in a new paragraph.
  • Action: End by explaining or reiterating what the reader should do with the information.

(Other patterns of organization are more effective for breaking bad news and writing to persuade.)

3. Unnecessary Reply-All

Reply-all horror stories have become a rite of passage in business communication. Unnecessary reply-alls clog inboxes and bury relevant information in threads of nonessential details.

THE FIX: We’re not saying your reply-all feature is a nuclear button, but you should use some caution and critical thinking before clicking it, especially for emails with numerous recipients. Ask yourself, Is the information in my reply relevant to the original sender and every other recipient, including those cc’ed on the message? If not, limit the reply to the original sender.

4. Improper Tone of Voice

Has the tone of an email ever rubbed you the wrong way? Good information told in an improper voice can impede communication and harm relationships. Watch out specifically for language that is disrespectful, whiny, flippant, rude, presumptuous, dismissive, or passive-aggressive.

THE FIX: Use a business-like voice (polite, professional, polished, and practical) and match your voice to the subject and reader:

  • A routine email to a colleague can use a semiformal voice: A semiformal voice is friendly, natural, personable, and conversational. It uses occasional contractions and some personal pronouns but avoids acronyms, text-speak, emojis, and GIFs.
  • Use a formal voice for emails about serious matters and to clients or other readers outside your organization. A formal voice uses complete sentences and correct punctuation; it is serious, dignified, deliberate, and objective. It avoids contractions and uses few if any personal pronouns.

Remember: Your writing voice is like a fashion choice—it’s far better to be overdressed than underdressed. When in doubt, raise your level of formality.

5. Misspelled Names

Of all the common typos, misspelled names of people or organizations are most harmful because they suggest a lack of care and respect.

THE FIX: Never assume your spelling is correct. Double-check the spelling of all names to avoid careless errors.

6. The Hasty "Send"

Have you ever sent a message in a rush but quickly realized you made an error? We've all made this mistake before and know that sinking feeling when we spot the error. 

THE FIX: Get in the habit of reading your emails slowly and out loud before clicking "send." This habit will help you avoid missing words and other obvious mistakes. For especially important emails, consider leaving off the recipients until the end, requiring you to pause and think before pressing “Send.”


Play the Editor!

The following message contains many of the common gaffes outlined above. Rewrite the message with the fixes in mind. To help with your rewrite, note the communication situation:

  • Subject: Using a comic in an upcoming company newsletter
  • Purpose: To get permission from the comic's creator
  • Receiver: Kellie Hanson, the creator of the comic
  • Context: Kellie does not work for Rankin Technologies

Subject Line: A Request

Hi Kelly,

Your website is fabulous. I’m a big fan of your comics—so witty! How do you come up with your ideas? I’m very interested in your creative process. Say, I’m working on a new company newsletter on password security for Rankin Technologies. I’m trying to make the newsletter more interesting and appealing. I was totally stuck until I discovered your website. I scrolled through and looked at everything, and then I saw it—your "Password Strength" comic!! It would make the perfect addition to our company newsletter. Do you mind if I use it? I’ll make sure to give you credit. I’ll include your name, website, and any other information you might want added. Just trying to be courteous, ya know. I’d love to know what else you’re working on these days. I might have a place for more of your work in our newsletters.

Message me a response ASAP.


Elias Bertrum
Marketing Manager
Rankin Technologies


Get More Support

Explore the Write for Business Guide, Courses, and past eTips for more help with writing effective workplace emails.


Editor’s Recommendation

The following rewrite includes an informative subject line, follows SEA organization, uses a professional tone of voice, and correctly spells the recipient's name.

Subject Line: Permission to Use Your Password Comic

Hi Kellie,

I am writing to ask for permission to include your “Password Strength” comic in an upcoming company newsletter. The newsletter focuses on password security, and your witty comic on the subject would make a perfect complement to the articles. 

I would include a credit line next to the comic acknowledging your name, website, and any other relevant information you would like me to add.

Please let me know if it is okay to use your comic. I would be happy to answer any questions you have about our request. 


Elias Bertrum
Marketing Manager
Rankin Technologies